How the Proud Boys Survive and Thrive Even In the Age of Deplatforming
In last night’s bizarre presidential debate, the competition for “most WTF moment” was stiff. But one statement from Trump has quickly become the takeaway line for both those on the left and right. When moderator Chris Wallace asked if Trump was willing to condemn white supremacists and militia, Trump rambled for a bit before asking who he was supposed to condemn. Once Biden offered the Proud Boys, a self-described “pro-Western fraternity,” Trump merely said “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by!” before once again attacking the left.
While the Trump campaign maintains that the statement was meant to show that Trump “wants them to knock it off,” as Jason Miller, one of Trump’s advisors, told The New York Times, members of the Proud Boys interpreted it differently. Before the debate was over, news outlets were already covering how members were celebrating it as a call to do exactly what the President said: stand by.
The response came from across social media, but probably not the platforms many of us are familiar with. Many people rely on a steady rotation of apps like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook to keep them scrolling. But the Proud Boys, classified as a hate group by both the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center, were suspended from Facebook and Twitter in 2018 after mounting pressure. Today, Proud Boys, and fellow extremist groups, have found homes in more niche social media platforms like Telegram and Parler.
The official Proud Boys response, now being widely reported, came from Telegram. Telegram, which was founded in Russia in 2013, has been used by both left- and right-wing activists. While many American internet companies like Facebook have yielded to censorship requests from foreign countries, Telegram has stated a commitment to keeping its messages private and refusing to ever hand over data. This made it an attractive tool to pro-Democracy protesters in Hong Kong, as Slate writes, as well as white supremacists. But Telegram deplatforming users, while incredibly rare, is not out of the question: In 2015, Telegram did remove channels related to ISIS from the platform.
Proud Boys and other right-wing extremists have also found a home on Parler, a more explicitly right-wing platform that describes itself as a “free speech alternative to Twitter.”
“Trump basically said to go fuck them up! this makes me so happy,” Proud Boys leader Joe Biggs posted on Parler to his 34,000 followers, as Forbes reports. While Parler’s user base is small compared to Twitter (“nearing 2 million,” per Forbes, compared to Twitter’s 186 million active monthly users), it doesn’t take massive numbers to cause worrying trends or great harm. Parler is also being boosted by more mainstream members of the right, including Rudy Giulani and Eric Trump.
Facebook, meanwhile, continues to play whack-a-mole with accounts that manage to still use the platform to support and organize Proud Boys and American Guard, another extremist group. The deplatforming, which many felt came too little, too late, does also not include suspending accounts of people who may defend the actions of right-wing militia members, including many in the more “mainstream” right like Tucker Carlson. Even on major platforms, their worldview is alive and well.